TBILISI (Reuters) - EU ceasefire monitors in Georgia claimed a small victory on Friday when Russian forces pulled back from a disputed village near breakaway South Ossetia, but witnesses said they returned with nightfall.
Georgia has condemned the Russian presence in Perevi as a violation of the ceasefire brokered after their five-day war in August, when Russia intervened in its ex-Soviet neighbor to halt a Georgian military assault on pro-Russian South Ossetia.
News of the troops’ departure eased fears of confrontation in the area, where some of the 1,100 villagers had packed up and left. European Union monitors said the pullback came at their insistence and followed discussions with the Russian foreign ministry and military.
But by nightfall, a regional police source said around 20 Russian soldiers with a single armored vehicle had returned to a checkpoint in Perevi. A police spokesman confirmed the account. An EU spokeswoman said a patrol would check the village in the morning.
Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze said Russia was “clowning around,” and told reporters: “A state with a sense of responsibility and that takes itself seriously should not behave in such a way.”
Russian forces pulled back in October from a buffer zone adjacent to South Ossetia, but kept soldiers in Perevi, which sits on the Georgian side of the de facto border with the breakaway territory.
Visiting the coastal town of Batumi, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Tbilisi was ready for dialogue with Russia, but that negotiations should be based on recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Russia has recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states with Russian military protection, ignoring Western opposition.
“We want good relations with Russia,” Saakashvili said. “We welcome diplomatic negotiations and we are ready for dialogue, based on recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity and taking into account the interests of all citizens of Georgia.”
South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Tbilisi’s rule in wars in the early 1990s. Russia says its decision to recognize them will not be reversed. The South Ossetia boundary zone remains tense, with frequent reports of Georgian police and South Ossetian security forces trading fire.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan